CAREER COLUMN

Why I’m not applying for promotion

Phill Cassey outlines one proactive step to support diversity in his workplace.
Phill Cassey is a conservation biologist at the University of Adelaide, Australia.
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Many academics aspire to get promoted as rapidly as possible, sometimes before they’ve acquired skills in mentoring, teaching or administration. But personal advancement can present a conflict between collaboration and competition. On the one hand, we stand together ‘on the shoulders of giants’, because our findings can enhance our disciplines, and we work collectively to share ideas and develop new approaches with our colleagues, students and mentors. On the other hand, we compete for limited research funding and awards, journal space and research impact, and tenured jobs.

Recent research has shown that, despite increasing recognition that ‘science is sexist’ and, in many institutions, suffers from an extreme gender imbalance, existing strategies to combat this bias fail most at the highest academic levels.

If scientists want genuine, rapid change, we must implement actions to address this diversity crisis. One such action is for male academics to delay their senior promotion until bias in their department or at their institution has been reduced and salary gaps have been ‘balanced’, or they see some other indicator of parity.

These actions should be used to enhance early- and mid-career tenured pathways, and not to negatively affect them — for either female or male fixed-term academics. In Australia, where I work at the University of Adelaide as a conservation biologist, universities have implemented female-only appointment strategies and positions. In 2016, the University of Melbourne advertised three mid-career positions in its School of Mathematics and Statistics for female applicants only, and other institutions have adopted similar approaches — including Adelaide.

Almost two-thirds of my own department’s tenured staff are already full professors, and more than 80% are male. Arguably, we have enough professorial leadership already, and rather than apply for promotion I prefer to wait and help to secure new competitive tenured pathways for early- and mid-career academics.

Delaying promotion is not something that suits a highly competitive profession based on measures of esteem and achievement. But rushing into promotion from privileged positions continues to exacerbate a deeply entrenched higher-level diversity problem, and historical imbalance is very slow to shift — despite the best intentions. For some senior academics, slowing down could have been a very good thing.

My own academic career has been forged by geographic flexibility and a mix of perseverance, privilege and good timing. In other words, a lot of my success has been down to luck. I am particularly lucky to have been mentored by amazing female scientists. My mother was a mathematician, and my early STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] pathway was heavily influenced by her and her sister. I continue to work with a broad range of inspirational scientists — young and old, male and female, local and international — and I have been equally fortunate to observe the very best of scientific behaviours (compassion, humility and genuine self-awareness).

As scientists, we occupy extremely influential positions as educators, researchers and public figures. How do I continue to improve myself, and set the best possible example? By always trying to encourage diversity and equity in everything I do. This includes not taking for granted the power imbalances that can all too easily develop in universities and other scientific organizations. By examining my own biases every day, I am endeavouring to reconcile and resolve them, but I am a white male tenured scientist, and I believe that I have a greater responsibility than most.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-03487-3

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at naturecareerseditor@nature.com.

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